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Selected Essays of Robert Doggett:

Elvis Slept Here

Among The Hang Gliders

Mean Kids

The Headmaster

Writ In Water

Letters and Commentary:

Barron's Letter 7/26/2004

Fiction by Robert Doggett:



Writ In Water

The following essay appeared in Eastsideweek:

Writ in Water

Ben Jonson wrote a poem about one of his sons who died in infancy, and in it he calls the boy his "best piece of poetry," or words to that effect. It's a lovely thought, to be sure, though I suppose anyone writing about the premature death of a young person must guard against the overstatement and sentimentality that seem to come easily at such times.

As I know them, the facts are that Julia Booms, a former student of mine who graduated from high school in 1987, was stricken with meningitis and encephalitis while undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. She went into a coma and eventually died on April 17, 1993. For several years and up until that spring her mom, Joan, had been the head of Overlake School. The last day I saw Julia was the day she graduated from Lakeside School over seven years ago. Rumors that she'd been a
tremendously successful student in college hadn't surprised me -- she'd been in my courses in tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades, and, though she was generally pretty quiet in class, she'd written brilliant essays, papers full of energy and insight.

Of course she wasn't always quiet in class. I remember one fall day in particular when she brought up a point about III, iii of Hamlet. This is the scene when Hamlet, full of neurotic energy from the play-within-a-play in the scene before, and on his way to confront his mother in her 'closet,' or dressing room, spots his uncle Claudius on his knees and wonders whether to kill him while he's helpless. I'd learned in graduate school that the crowning irony of the scene was to be found in the king's
last lines:

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below,
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

Though they are spoken before Hamlet enters, it is clear that his excuse for not murdering Claudius does not apply at all. He'd postponed killing the king principally out of fear that his uncle had fully confessed his crimes and so would somehow be forgiven by the Almighty. It was Julia who raised her hand and said, "This scene suggests that Hamlet is a Christian, but something about it leaves me suspicious. Sure, he acts like a Christian, and he's troubled by all kinds of scruples in the play that make us think he's got a strong conscience. Look at his reasoning, though. The only reason he doesn't kill his uncle is that he wants to be sure he'll go to hell. That doesn't sound very Christian to me." Of course this isn't the only time that Hamlet's Christianity comes up in the play. One of the most famous examples is earlier, in his first soliloquy, when Hamlet appears to be contemplating suicide and wishes that "the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter." Still, for me and others in the class, Julia's comments on Hamlet's self-serving rhetoric helped us focus and
begin to examine the ways he seemed to be like any of us, endlessly grasping at straws to keep from doing what he was afraid of or wished to avoid.

I knew I'd saved copies of a few of Julia's papers. One of my old Romantic professors (the subject, not the teacher, to be sure) in graduate school had made fun of Wordsworth's "squirrel-like impulse," his tendency to note his feelings and thoughts as though he were saving them up, like nuts, for the winter, and if ever a person has been susceptible to this, it's me. I had saved many letters from both my parents long before they died, and at school I have whole filing cabinet full of student papers for keeping. I knew I'd saved an essay Julia wrote sophomore year about a sunfish she'd seen a fisherman drag from the water and kill. There was also a lovely essay from a test, an answer having to do with the imagery in Macbeth; my fear was that I'd thrown them out when I was doing the inevitable weeding and thinning that must occur when the filing cabinets become full. I was sure I'd done just that the fall before she died.

I looked and looked. Nothing. Then I found a batch of papers. It was the most unlikely thing of all, a worksheet on iambic pentameter I've sometimes given out to tenth graders studying Macbeth. Another teacher had given me the idea for it. Students were to write ten or twelve lines using iambic pentameter. There, in labored handwriting that could only have been the result of a great deal of effort and frustration, covered with accents and curved symbols to indicate stressed and unstressed syllables, were the lines:

Upon the baby now we do await,
And to watch you is as to go back in time,
So like my father you do act. Joyful,
Worried, and forever wondering at the birth.
All first-time fathers, are they quite the same?
"My dear, I hope you got enough to eat,
So that our darling baby will be strong."
Oh, how to be a parent? Strong and firm,
Yet warm and loving. Hope you do as well
As mine have done.

It was flattering to have been chosen as the subject of all this labor. My oldest son Tom had been born around that time, and that year my sophomores had been subjected to various follies and inanities associated with the birth of children, such as a "Sophomore Name-the-Baby Contest, " and the like. At the time it was comforting that I hadn't done any permanent damage to my students out of excitement over the new arrival.

These lines were not typical of Julia, since as far as I know she was not an overly effusive person. I won't say she was too smart for that sort of thing, though it has entered my mind; rather, Julia just seemed to love certainty, and predictability -- the sheer joy of having a lab turn out perfectly, or a physics problem coming out right. And one thing certain in her mind was that she had wonderful parents, a fact abundantly clear even to those who had only spoken to them for two minutes at
Parent's Night, as I had.

Best of all, Julia had scribbled at the bottom of the page, then erased (it's just barely visible on the xerox), the words, "I HATE POETRY." As for me? I really hate the fact that she is gone.

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